Mary Ann Cooper
We are becoming a nation of entrepreneurs. The rise of candidates seeking MBA degrees is a testament to that. Many of those candidates are minorities who aren’t exactly feeling the love from corporate America despite the institution of diversity programs in these same companies. These MBA candidates are following a long tradition of minorities and immigrants for more than a century who have opened their own businesses – from managing neighborhood grocery stores to running local companies providing goods and services to the community. Then as today, the odds against them were steep, but the rewards were enormous. This month, we salute a company that was founded by a Hispanic American 80 years ago and is still a family-owned business breaking new ground and expanding his vision to give Hispanics a taste of home as they pursue their American dream.
Prudencio Unanue, founder of Goya Foods, Inc., was born in northern Spain in 1886. When both the Spanish and the European economies became depressed, Unanue immigrated at the age of 17 to San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, in search of better employment opportunities and opened a small food distribution business. In 1918, he moved to New York City to enroll in the Albany Business School and in 1921, returned to San Lorenzo to marry Carolina Casal de Valdés whom he had met in Puerto Rico and whose parents had also emigrated from Spain.
In 1928, the Unanues moved to Brooklyn, and in 1935, Prudencio opened Unanue, Inc. on Duane Street in lower Manhattan. The next year, Unanue purchased the rights to the name, Goya, a brand of sardines he imported from Morocco. The transaction cost him only a dollar. From that humble beginning and transaction an empire grew creating the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the United States.
Now, it is run by Prudencio’s grandson, Bob, who is the company’s president and CEO, and so Goya Foods remains very much a family affair. Bob’s brother, Peter, is the company’s executive vice president. Both men sat down with HO to talk about the rich history of the company and its commitment to authenticity through international outreach and targeted distribution. “In 1949, our grandfather and our uncles put up a factory in Puerto Rico to make pasteles to make gandules to do products from Puerto Rico that were indigenous and authentic,” Bob explained.
Not surprisingly, the Unanue brothers have developed encyclopedic knowledge of what they call their primary cuisine. “Our product line and the bulk of our sales are in rice and beans, the dynamic duo of nutrition,” Bob said, but the infinite variation of these products makes it tricky to manage a product line.
“Gandules come from India but are also from Caribbean—mainly from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico but not Cuba. Cubans are linked with black beans. Every group, even the Northern part of Puerto Rico, will eat red kidney beans and pink beans. Others will use more pinto beans. For an island 110 by 35 [miles], you have different cuisines around the island. It’s the same in Mexico. You have the tropical, the Yuccatan, you have the desert, and each has a different cuisine,” Bob explained. “We go to Peru often. We go to food shows. We’re constantly in front of countries and cuisines to learn about what people’s eating habits are and go to the source.”
Peter Unanue says that the diversity of their product line is matched by the people employed by their country. “Employees are diverse. As we develop new products, we have someone from Peru or Mexico in on the taste test,” Peter said, “because they might know better than we do about what’s authentic.”
Around the world, Goya has more than 2,400 different products, which have been carefully developed and selected. “We go neighborhood by neighborhood. We do the demographics to see where our food goes. The neighborhoods change constantly, so that’s why we go about our business by way of direct door delivery,” Peter explained. “Instead of going to warehouses, we have salesmen visiting individual stores. That enables us to have the best mix of products neighborhood by neighborhood.”
Bob and Peter’s passion for the business goes back to their childhood when they both started to work for Goya Foods. “In 1964 when I was 10, I used to go to work with my dad and grandfather on Saturdays,” Bob said. “I went in one Saturday, and he gave me 50 cents. Over Christmas break, I worked a 40-hour week in December 1964. I had to pack the olives and olive oil, and I remember my first job was packaging the calendars with a flamenco dancer on the cover. I stuffed them into envelopes and came home with a few thousand paper cuts. I made 20 bucks that week; 50 cents an hour. Ever since then, I worked summers or winters in the factory to loading trucks to delivering products. It didn’t bother me to work at that age. I was in love with the company and the people. Work was fun; I didn’t consider it a chore.”
Peter was only nine when their father, passed away but got into the family business as soon as he could. “I was younger, so by the time I was of working age, Bob was married and working with the company full-time. Every summer, I’d work in a different area starting in clerical and in the factory. I’d work some summers in Puerto Rico with mechanics on the manufacturing line. I learned how machines worked and how to fix them. It was a really neat practical education on business.”
While his grandfather broke new ground in 1936, Bob Unanue sees groundbreaking progress ahead for Goya. “We’re really just beginning. You have to recognize you can’t do it yourself. What we’ve done is bring in all these people whether it’s for tech or product development or nutrition. We do our own advertising. We do our own manufacturing. We are vertically integrated. We make our own cans and bottles. And we do our own packaging. The beauty is you have a lot of people who have such pride in what the company has become. We’ve set up scholarship programs, which has helped employees all along. We are now starting to get thank you cards from these scholarship recipients. They say, ‘Thank you for your generosity over the last four years. I would not have achieved my goal without your support.’ That is also part of this country’s legacy.” •